Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting Closer To the Client

Dreamation was awesome. At this point that almost goes without saying. It's like "the sun is hot." I feel spoiled by a convention in which a night of copious vomiting is immediately forgotten under the weight of great conversation with stimulating, like minded individuals and their impressive and emotive games. Favorite moments? Wow. I don't know. Maybe the "What are you doing fighting a fox?!?!" thing. That had me crawling out of my skin in the best way possible.

Rather than retread the ground of other con delights already expressed by more eloquent and faster-on-the-draw posters, I will write about my playtesting and GMing experiences.


So, Contract Work. Hmmm. These were the roughest playtests I've done so far. Nearly every modification I made since the last major draft was shaky at best. Here are the issues I encountered.

I sped players through character creation. In the second playtest I put all 4 players in the same organization. This created a false expectation about the focus and led to confusion.

I should emphasize the networking of hitters. They come from all over the world and from differing backgrounds. "Ronin" was an influence on this element. I must reinforce diversity and allow them the same starting value, regardless of who is a mafioso and who is a government assassin.

The reward split. At present, all involved receive the same pay at completion. I had a rule that made players who didn't participate pay more active players. My first playtest of the day (the solo Hitter, the mission in which this rule did not even apply) pointed out that I was using this mechanic completely backwards. Punishing the brazen rather than the cautious.

Gone. In its place, I will create rules whereby the players are paid for their level of participation. Players must stake their claim in segments of the job. Perhaps as they are determined. If a player botches a segment, it passes to a different player covering for the mistake, claiming that reward.

I want the game to move faster. Which is odd, since the average playtime is 2 1/2 hours, character creation included. Confrontation exchanges lag. One character is the lead so others wait. Not unlike a lengthy, detailed, wavering combat turn in D&D. If I want to create independent movement among the players, I can't afford to let them sit around. This also leaves more time to narrate a confrontation; usually truncated since I feel the need to pick up the pace.

This is the biggie. I need to streamline the core mechanics of confrontations. An all-or-nothing approach was suggested which would ratchet up the tension (maybe allowing other players more cringing involvement which will fill in the gaps in their own action.) Narration could be improved if I have the players narrate what happened on each bid and raise. (I had that in my drafts from 2006 and lost it in the shuffle!)

While typing below I had another idea for this. I'll write it up elsewhere.

Preparation trade-up. Players plan out the job from the hit, backward in time as they explain what they did to prepare. The hitters spend money to collect the advantages that they must spend to do the Hit. Now players can make any action an attempt to gain a preparation as preps trade-up and roll into each other. This nullifies the need for an actual Hit action as preps are already cutting the target's defenses effectively.

A) The GM decides if a confrontation is a hit and makes players use preps instead of gaining more. B) A phase with a cut-off to gain preps and another to use them. C) Abolish the Hit actions and let there be one kind of confrontation.

A cuts the players off from possible narrative approaches. Is kidnapping the target's bodyguard a hit because it diminishes the target's ability to strike back, or a prep because that bodyguard might have a key to the house? B can break the phases by the money spent. A "what did you do?" and "how did you do it?" segmentation. C: Hit actions were created because using money on the target makes less sense than using preparations instead.

Also, instead of combining preps on a single hit, play each preparation out in a series at the Hit. This happened in a playtest when the players wanted a Plan B.

Debt threat and the campaign cycle. The long game. Over a Hitter's career, they must avoid accruing debt. Too much debt makes them a target. At the same time, they must end their career by paying off the reason for their hitter's life and getting out when debt does rise too high. Playtests show the current economy gives a hitter a lifespan of about 10+ jobs. This may be too long. The tension of increasing debt needs to be more prevalent.

It's hard to say how this plays out. In a one-shot playtest, why should a player avoid debt on a character they will never play again? I may be getting artificial results.

The real problem is how to adjust. This means fcuking the entire economy of the game. The player needs time to pay off their character so that they could survive the end of their career.

I based the difficulty of jobs around the pay and target's budget so that an easy job allows for low bids and low risk on the job but slim rewards at the end. This may tie in to adjusting the resolution mechanics if I end up diverging from the simple bidding system.

One quick thought is to eliminate the player's cash up front for the job. They bid only against their debt. If they win a confrontation, they recover the bid, plus the preparation or damage to the target. If they lose, that's the money that goes on debt. That needs a lot of thought.

The reason for being a Hitter and career's end. This is supposed to be the most important bit of background. It is the character's motivation and foreshadows the events it will take to get the hitter into retirement without a bullet in the head.

Again, in the original draft, one example character needs money to get through school (!) and start her own business. Another wants to fund his revenge against the guy who's blackmailing him back into the life of a hitter. Telling us what is happening under the hood and what getting out means. I can fix this if I return to my original notes and communicate this properly in playtests.

Trust mechanics? I see these in a lot of similar games and I've wondered about adding to mine. (No one has directly suggested these, just my own curiosity.)

FCUK THAT! My models at the start of designing were "Joey the Hitman," "The Mechanic" and "Hitman: Codename 47." These people are already beyond morals. They do not show remorse or confusion. This is a job. My players are allowed to glory in being a person who has trained themselves to kill. Forgive me Father.

If I remember to set up the network concept, the players recognize they don't trust each other. They use each other. "You have to trust me" should be followed by the thought "where's my money?" They don't need to be at each other's throats so long as they have the common goal (everyone suffers if the job fails.) They are not required to do anything more and can get more money by doing more of the job. If they want, they can share at the end, but too much camaraderie needs to be discouraged by the risk v. payoff. More immediate danger of failure may help this as players recognize who takes point and who does not.

How to be a Total Bastard. The GM had no bite in the first iterations of the game. The GM now has more ways to strike at the players, creating increases in difficulty, making players acquire liabilities that will hold them back later in addition to GM assaults on preparations. The GM uses Risk tokens to call on these effects. In my first game, the solo play, I didn't get many more than the starting tokens and in the party game, I had too many and not enough time to spend them.

In the hands of a sadist, this may be enough. I don't really fall into that category when running CW. I need to take the option of being a bastard out of the GM's hands and make the rules do it. Maybe secretly distribute the GM's Risk tokens ahead of time, as the job is being created. They are fixed to events and the player who steps on them is hit by the trap. Possible bonus: If they beat the confrontation, they collect the token and THAT tracks their reward.

The GM must also be allowed to trigger liabilities, increasing the threat they represent.

Maybe the GM needs to be able to lure players off the job in addition to pushing them. Then again, maybe not. If the debt threat is high enough, dropping loyalty to the client may mean a quick turnaround into being a target.


I'd like to thank everyone for their recent playtesting help, both at the con and before: Aly, Tim, Don, Jo, Blake, Brett, Jon, David, and . . . Oh sh*t. Blake, please save me here. I have her badge number and a blank where the name should be.

As always, the indie round table is a great source of ideas. I went through a great deal of trimming and it seems a lot of useful ideas hit the cutting room floor. I'm going through that mess now.

My run of Don't Rest Your Head was a well developed story I felt. Suitably spooky and so engaging I entirely forgot my promise to keep it brief since it was a midnight game. Oh well, sleep is the enemy of fun.

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